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My story, in pictures: Amber, a participant in CareerLinks’ women’s retreat. Photo by: Alicia Solsman

They’re Gonna Make It After All
The women of CareerLinks take time off to celebrate finding sustained employment

On Saturday, June 12, they sat in a pleasant, air-conditioned room, Aretha Franklin playing on a stereo in the background. Chatting, gossiping and laughing, not unlike the sewing circles of yesteryear, they cut and stitched together personal flags—their own declarations of their triumphs, decorated with the symbols of their history. Many women chose trees to represent their personal growth, while others decided on doves and angels to express their feelings of being watched over. These are the women of Albany’s CareerLinks Inc., a nonprofit welfare-to-work program that emphasizes the importance of job retention by providing programs and workshops that help build life skills just as much as work skills.

“We see our role as cheerleaders,” said founder Marsha Lazarus, who organized the daylong retreat at the Women’s Building on Central Avenue in Albany as a reward for women in the program who had found and sustained employment. The day’s activities included yoga, journal decorating and a Mary Kay lesson, but it was the personal flag project that proved most revealing. As they sat and stitched together their flags, the women openly discussed their own lives and goals, and what the program had done for them.

Amber, a young woman who created a flag with an image of a flower emerging from a broken heart, advised another woman who was unsure of her flag design: “As long as you do what your heart desires, you can never mess up.” Even though she came to the retreat directly from an eight-hour night shift at work, Amber’s enthusiasm was contagious. She has been involved with CareerLinks for two years, and currently works with visiting nurses. Her goal is to someday become a registered nurse, and she credits CareerLinks with helping her understand how to succeed, and help her focus on her goals.

Another woman, Irene, hasn’t been directly involved in the program since two years ago, but was invited to join the day’s festivities. Like many participants in the program, Irene once had domestic problems that interfered with her finding stable employment. Once she was involved, Irene felt comfort that the program was there for her, giving her support she could rely on. She says CareerLinks has helped her mature and has given her the strength to not run away from her problems and keep going forward: “They’re always gonna be there for you, no matter what. . . . The program is a great program, I recommend anybody join. The more [work] they get, the better they do.” Her ultimate goal is to return to school, which the program is willing to help her with.

CareerLinks was started in 2000 in response to the biggest problem Lazarus observed during her time in the employment and training field: For most low-income people, finding a job was not the issue; it was job retention and advancement. However, most employment programs focused exclusively on finding a job. Factors such as transportation, the need for child care, and undiagnosed learning disabilities often prevent employees from advancing. CareerLinks strives to help its participants by focusing on creating solid work and life skills. By maintaining an average caseload of 20 to 25, CareerLinks is able to give direct, personalized assistance to those participating in their program.

Besides completing a 90-day follow-up for those they place and offering workshops in career-building skills, CareerLinks offers an on-site support group at Albany Medical Center in hopes of creating an open line of communication between employee and employer. According to the organization, in 2003, 49 percent of employees participating in on-site job-retention services at Albany Medical Center, Resurrection Nursing Home and Schuyler Ridge Nursing Home stayed at their job for at least one year.

One of the qualities CareerLinks attempts to instill in its participants is perseverance. As the women sat and chatted idly, one woman gave up on the flag project altogether. She claimed she wasn’t cut out for crafts, and was too frustrated to attempt to finish her work. However, 20 minutes later, she was sitting on the floor, diligently finishing her flag, carefully laying out fabric and delicately gluing it all together.

As they went around the room and shared their flags with the group, the woman told stories that were both heartbreaking and humorous. They apologized for their lack of artistic skills, and highly praised each other’s work. Their dedication and support for each other gave them a confidence they said they’d never had while alone. As program member Marilenia stated while presenting her flag: “Hope is very important for everyone. It keeps us going, growing.”

—Ashley Thiry

Home is where the humanism is: Donald Whisenhunt. Photo by: John Whipple
Faith of the Fathers
The argument over “under God” is more than academic for one local family

The pressure of memorizing the member tribes of the Iroquois nation, finally getting a real handle on long division, or calming the marrow-deep anxiety of dodgeball: These are the great obstacles of fourth grade. But, according to Donald Whisenhunt, for his 9-year-old daughter, Alex, there is also the question of the vulnerability of her eternal soul to Satan.

Whisenhunt, a chemical researcher living in Niskayuna, is the atheist father of three young children, two of whom are currently enrolled in Niskayuna schools. Each morning, his school-age kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance, swearing their fealty to a nation subject to a god in whom their parents do not believe. Though the children are not required by school policy to participate, the pressure of conformity is significant, and the expression of beliefs that go against the grain can earn the dissenting student a lot of grief.

“My daughter definitely has [gotten a hard time],” Whisenhunt said. “Being told that she’s going to go to the devil, and stuff like that.”

Whisenhunt has, in the past, crusaded in his school district against policies that he believes violate the Constitution’s mandate of separation of church and state: With a group of other parents—atheists and nonatheists alike—Whisenhunt convinced the administration of Hillside Elementary to discontinue its sponsorship of the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that excludes atheist and homosexual boys (not to mention all girls) as a matter of policy. Whisenhunt characterized that victory as “limited.”

“I was not able to get a districtwide policy change, but I was able to bring enough pressure to my own elementary school to get them to work to have other arrangements,” he said.

He has taken no such action thus far to contest the “under God” clause added to the pledge in 1954 (it would take years of battling through lower courts before ever getting it back to the Supreme Court, he said), and said that he has in no way encouraged—much less commanded—his children to abstain.

“They say the pledge of allegiance everyday; I would never tell them not to,” he said. But, nevertheless, Whisenhunt is troubled by that wording.

“I think it does make it difficult to teach them religion the way I want to when I’m having to explain why the school is having them recite something that involves God,” he said. “We’re members of the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, and we’re very involved there. So, the children learn about all types of religions and all types of beliefs; but when they come to me and ask me what do I believe in, I tell them I don’t believe in God. They want to be like their parents at this age. And they get very confused when I tell them that, and yet they have to recite it at school.”

Whisenhunt said he was not surprised at the Supreme Court’s failure to conclusively resolve the issue, and speculated that the justices were perhaps relieved to duck a ruling that might have angered a “vocal majority of people in the United States.”

“My speculation would be that individuals, when asked about other individual’s beliefs, are fairly tolerant,” he said. “However, when changes are made like this change would be, they see it as an attack on their religious beliefs.

“Every time you make an effort to keep the government secular, the more religious people make it sound like you’re making an atheist government, that you’re actually promoting atheism by making the government secular, which I don’t believe is true at all.”

Whisenhunt said he believes it likely that someone else will pick up the mantle of Michael Newdow, the atheist father whose case was dismissed when it was determined that he was not a legal representative of his daughter, on whose behalf Newdow objected to the phrasing. It will be comparatively easy to find another litigant interested in amending the pledge, said Whisenhunt.

“I’m pretty sure that someone else will bring it, that it shouldn’t be a problem to find someone with standing, and all the legwork has really been done. So, I expect it to be back in front of the Supreme Court again. And given the fact that they didn’t take the opportunity to say it’s not a valid argument, I think that there’s a fair chance—especially if Scalia has to recuse himself again—that it could be a close case. I’m hopeful that it might be stricken.”

In the meantime, Whisenhunt will continue to do his best to explain to his kids the discrepancy between the family’s private cosmological beliefs and the messages being provided by the public schools. Based on his daughter Alex’s experiences thus far, Whisenhunt is optimistic that they’ll manage.

“She finds it troubling, but I must say, her largest confrontation I thought she handled very well,” he said. “The other student . . . said she was going to go to the devil because she didn’t believe in God, and my daughter responded that she didn’t believe in the devil either.”

—John Rodat

Line? What Line?
Separation of church and state faces challenge and threat from many directions

‘I think it is very important for people who are serving [in public office] to make sure there is a separation of church and state,” President George W. Bush said at a June 15 press conference. But after a month of wrangling in Congress and at the Supreme Court over the roles of religion in public life and politics in the pulpit, many are questioning both the president’s sincerity on the issue and how well some public servants understand what separation of church and state entails.

On June 3, the Bush campaign made headlines when an e-mail message seeking to enlist the support of 1,600 “friendly” church groups across the country in distributing its campaign literature and registering voters came to light. Although candidates of both parties often appear before congregations during election seasons, federal tax laws prohibit overt political endorsements by houses of worship, which are tax-exempt.

“This is the most shocking example of politicizing churches I’ve ever seen,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the watchdog group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The Bush campaign is endangering those churches’ tax exemptions.”

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, undoubtedly knew this when the following week he introduced a provision called Safe Harbor for Churches, which would make it easier for religious groups to back political candidates, to a larger bill dealing with corporate taxes. The measure would have significantly eased tax penalties for churches making one or two intentional political endorsements of candidates per year, and allowed up to three “unintentional” endorsements per year. Conveniently, the provision did not bother to define what an unintentional endorsement would be. This in theory could have allowed a preacher to evade IRS sanctions by claiming that the devil had made him urge Sunday worshippers to vote for George W. Bush.

Advocates of church-state separation cried foul. Rob Boston, a spokesman for AUSCS, commented in an e-mail message that the measure was “a backdoor attempt to legalize the politicization of houses of worship.” In response to such critics, Schmidt reiterated the president’s view and called the group’s position “extreme.” The full House Ways and Means Committee bowed to the barrage of protest and voted unanimously to delete the measure.

Meanwhile, on June 8, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights invited Alabama’s “Commandments Judge,” Roy Moore, to testify at a hearing on alleged hostility toward religion in America. Moore, who had been removed from his position as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to follow a federal court order to remove a monument depicting the Ten Commandments from his Montgomery courthouse, urged Congress to pass a bill before the Senate sponsored by Sen. Richard C. Shelby, (R-Ala.). Shelby’s bill would strip the Supreme Court and district courts of their power to decide cases against federal, state or local government officers for proclaiming God as the sovereign source of law, liberty or government. “Roy Moore showed blatant and utter disrespect for the Constitution of the United States and the rule of law,” responded Lynn. “The ongoing attempts by some legislators to lionize Moore’s lawbreaking is an embarrassment to the nation.”

The premise that the nation is hostile to religion is questionable: According to a recent Fox News poll, 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God, 85 percent in heaven, and 82 percent in miracles.

The debate over of expressions of faith in public continued on June 14, when the Supreme Court, in an 8-0 decision, declined to rule on whether the phrase “under God” should be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance. The petitioner, Dr. Michael A. Newdow, an atheist father of a San Francisco kindergarten student, contended that reciting the pledge was a religious exercise in violation of the separation of church and state. To complicate the matter, Newdow and his daughter’s mother, Sandra Banning, are not married and live apart, and a California court has awarded the right to decide the child’s education to her mother, a Christian who wants the girl to recite the pledge with the “under God” phrase. Citing this, the court ruled that Newdow lacked standing to sue, leaving the matter of the pledge undecided, though three justices made it clear that they thought there was no problem with the phrase. It is likely, observers on all sides said, that the justices will be hearing a similar case in the future.

—Glenn Weiser

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